I bought Return of the Heroes during a period when I was scratching around looking for an "ideal" adventure or dungeon game to add to my collection. My criteria were that I wanted something relatively short,relatively simple, entirely competetive (so no "players v GM" or co-op games) and which, ideally, had a solo option. RotH seemed to tick all these boxes and as a bonus had a novel quest system to add to the narrative, something which is sorely missing in a lot of these sorts of games. So, did it measure up to the initial promise of providing real adventure style quest-driven game play with some proper strategy involved? Or is this just another ignoble Talisman clone, cashing in on the glory of better games? Well, neither, as it turns out.
RotH is infamous for having an indecipherable rule booklet, impenetrable to the point that fans have provided entirely re-written versions of the rules in plain English. This reputation is, in my opinion, undeserved. The rulebook is presented in the manner of a conversation between the characters in the game and is intensely annoying, not to mention having all the characterization depth of particularly thin paper, and was a really struggle to read through. But having done so I found myself well able to play the game, once I'd realised that this was one of those titles where many of the rules are found in a seperate booklet which details all the encounters.
Because half the rules are actually in another booklet, I have to say that another reputation attached to this game - that it is simple to the point of being family-friendly - is also undeserved. It's not particularly complex, no, but beyond the base system there's actually quite a bit to learn before you can play the game effectively. You can start just from the basic rules, but doing that will likely lead to a slow and frustrating first game where everyone ends up reading the encounter booklet whenever a chit gets turned over and no-one actually knows how to win. Carcassonne, this isn't. Nor is it a game I'd attempt to teach to anyone younger than a teenager.
As is the norm in these games each player picks a character to play. There are five in the game: a dwarf, an elf, a warrior, a wizard and a cleric. Each has a number of stats which will be familiar to fans of this style of game: life points, movement, and three combat skill numbers representing the characters abilities with melee, ranged and magical combat. The basic game system revolves around making checks against these numbers: you roll two dice and attempt to score lower than your ability in that particular skill. As you gain experience in a skill you can add dice to the number rolled and pick the two lowest, which obviously makes success a lot easier. You can also raise the target number by equipping items or training the skill at one of the games' trainer encounters.
The board consists of a number of square tiles, each of which has an entry/exity point in the middle of each side as well as a number of internal locations connected by paths. These are assembled together into one big square - you have a choice of setting them up in order, setting them up randomly or setting them up randomly face-down to add an exploration element to the game. Once the board is set up then a fixed set of thirty-two encounter chits are placed randomly across the board, four in each tile, all at different locations. Each player starts in one corner tile and from there can move within or between tiles for a number of locations equal to their movement value. If they reach a location with an encounter then they stop, flip it over and see what it is.
There are several types of encounters in the game. Monsters force you to stop and fight - each has a list of the skills you can attack it with and a skill modifier used in the combat (so some monsters are immune to magic, some are very hard in melee and so on). Beating a monster allows you to add experience to the combat skill you used to fight it. Quests are tasks your character can accomplish for a reward and most of them are of the pick-up-and-deliver variety. Finally encounters are anything else you can run in to - a market, for example, or a helpful ranger or a healing fountain. If something it taken off the board as a result of resolving the chit - say if you've beaten a monster or picked up a quest - then the player draws a new chit from a selection that start the game in a bag and, if he's just beaten a monster, puts the monster chit in the bag so it can be drawn later in the game. The chits which start in the bag come in a variety of forms, some of which are one-off events and others of which drive the central game mechanic: the heroic deed.
See, the goal of the game is to be the first to kill "the Nameless", a randomly selected super-baddie who dwells in his dark tower (one of the locations on the board). To get into the dark tower you need a gem, and to get a gem you need to complete a heroic deed, a special two-part quest which is either assigned to you at the start or which you can pick up as you move around the board. Depending on what optional rules you're using some or all of the items and monsters needed to complete the heroic deeds start in the bag, so your ability to progress toward winning the game depends on these chits coming out of the bag and that is, of course, entirely random. Once someone has completed their heroic deed a number of minion and guard monsters are added to the board, making progress round more difficult but offering more chances for heroes to gain experience. So, once you've completed your heroic deed and feel you're tough enough to beat the nameless you can go and try - and if you're the first to succeed it's game over and you win. If you fail then you're out of the game, but by the time anyone tries to take on the Nameless, someone else won't be far off trying so there's no real player elimination aspect here.
The other thing that there isn't here is player interaction. The players are all supposed to be goody-goody heroes out to save the land from the dread terror of the nameless so they can't go around interfering with each others' quests. There are no rules for inter-player combat and trading items and gold is basically forbidden so whilst you can certainly meet other characters as you progress round the board, you can't do anything if you do.
When I first opened my box I had a really pleasant surprise. This is one of a vanishingly small number of games which features an effective and thoughtfully designed box insert. Everything has a place, the place is pretty obvious and, what's more, the pieces don't shift about in the box much when it's all packed away and stored. Full marks for this, and its a component that more publishers ought to take seriously. The game also includes a drawstring bag which is, amazingly, often absent from other games such as Arkham Horror which would benefit hugely from having one supplied.
The quality of the game components has generally been praised. There are certainly some nice touches - the artwork on the game board location tiles is very good, and I particularly like the inclusion of some actual semi-precious stones for use as gems in the game. However beyond the landscapes the remaining artwork in the game is unbelievably awful. The character paintings are hideously cheerful, cheesy, high-fantasy stereotypes right out of the early seventies complete with heaving cleavage for the females. The monster art, which appears to be CGI rendered using the Microsoft Paint tool that's included as standard in Windows, is almost laughably childish. Who's going to be scared of a ghoul that looks like an old man after a bad night in the pub? Unfortunately this trend extends even on to the Nameless cards, all of whom look about as nonthreatening as a poorly rendered clipart bad guy can. The physical design, though robust, also leaves quite a lot to be desired since I've found untold instances where the effects of something would be have been better off printed on the chit - even if it meant the chits needed to be larger - than separated out into an appendix to the rules booklet.
Setup, which sounds involved, isn't terribly long or difficult thanks partly to that excellent box insert meaning you can find all the things you need with a minimum of fuss. You'll need a fairly big table to fit the board and then leave enough room round the outside for everyone's character cards and the chits you'll need during the game, perhaps too much for a card table but nothing the average dining table shouldn't be able to handle. The game then lasts something in the region of thirty minutes per player once everyone has got used to all the rules and the flow of the game.
The game scales well through all of it's player numbers. This is largely thanks to the fact that it's a "multiplayer solitaire" title with no direct player interaction, so adding players in no way imbalances the game. That scale also includes the solo version which sees the character racing against a set time limit instead of the other players, with the board becoming progressively more dangerous as the time counts down and this is, for the most part, tense and satisfying. However the more I've played the more I've come to realise that this game is absolutely screaming for more player interaction. Not only would it make the game more interesting and interactive, but it would solve a rather bizarre problem with the game. If you randomly select a Nameless, it starts face down and no-one knows what it is, but some of the Nameless characters are vulnerable to particular items found in the game - and there's only one of each item. Although it's possible for you to find out what the Nameless is before you face it, it's more likely that someone will pick up the required item before anyone knows what the Nameless is and what item is required to kill him. That character then has an immense advantage through no skill of their own and - this is the rub - there's no way anyone else can get the item. PvP combat or thievery would bring a whole new lease of life to this title.
The rules promise that this is a skills based game in which a more experienced and insightful player should usually triumph over a less skilled one in spite of the heavy use of dice and random draws in the game. This is not immediately apparent on the first couple of plays but after a while the truth of this statement will eventually be borne out.
The initial lag is because you need to get to grips with how the game plays before you can figure out where the skill lies. This, like many other adventure style games, is effectively a race to become powerful enough to defeat the nameless as fast as possible. So you need to learn to utilise the various methods the game has for advancement to best effect. Killing monsters is a prime route, but you'll need to quickly learn what you can defeat at different levels of experience in order to stop wasting your time and your life points in futile quests for experience cubes. Same goes for quests - you've got to start figuring out where to pick up quests which you can fulfill with the minimum amount of fuss and movement around the board. There are other ways you can get experience and useful artifacts such as visiting trainers and buying things from the markets. At the bottom line, since you only get one shot at killing the nameless, you've got to make sure you know when you're ready - leave it too long and another player will pip you to the post, but go in too soon and the nameless will make mincemeat out of you. Put all this together and you've got a game which does present you with a tricky challenge which can be solved largely through skill.
But if all this sounds like it's one giant efficiency exercise dressed up in fantasy trappings, you'd be right. What's largely on offer here are decision trees revolving around questions such as "which monster can I reach fastest that I'm most likely to kill" or "which will benefit me most over the course of the game, a cart from the market or a visit to the trainer?". The answers are not straightforward by any means so the decisions can certainly be interesting but at heart it's still just a big old optimisation game like so many other Euros that I've picked up and discarded over the years. The layer of fantasy chrome that's been carefully applied over the top hides it for the first few sessions but once you've worn off the veneer, those Euro bones are going to start showing through for everyone to see.
The play experience of games in this genre tends to stand and fall on two aspects - the strength of story that they generate for the players, and how cleverly they re-create the experience of adventuring into the unknown that you get from an RPG being run by a GM.
On the latter count, RotH succeeds admirably. In the basic game the encounters are all unknown at the start of the game, giving players the pleasure and excitement of turning over a chit to find out what it is. It's certainly possible for players to discover a monster their character isn't capable of handling, but the fact you'll only loose one life point to the beastie means this isn't a game-breaking factor. If you're so inclined there's an official variant setup that sees most of the board tiles placed face down giving you the chance for a full-on exploration of the unknown. Once you've moved and resolved the encounter you may also get the opportunity to draw something new from the bag, adding further excitement to the experience.
As far as narrative goes, RotH initially looks to have a big head start over other games in this area because of the inclusion of a quest system. This ought to give the story a much stronger yet more flexible backbone than the fixed set-ups of other adventure boardgames. But RotH, presumably in the interests of simplicity, then goes on to shoot itself in the foot by providing a series of cookie-cutter encounters which all play in the same manner - and to add insult to injury it's a very limited series indeed at a paltry 32 tokens. Nearly all the monsters are just pick a skill and roll the dice - no fantastic powers, no flavourful special rules, no exciting multi-round combat with tactical choice. Nearly all the location tiles you can visit acts the same, they just sport different artwork. Nearly all the items just add direct skill or stat bonuses. The quests are all some variation on get X and take it to location Y. Perhaps most sinfully of all even the characters are clones of one another - the magic user and the warrior, for example, are basically the same except their skill numbers for "magic" and "melee" are swapped over - the mage has no spells and the warrior has no special combat moves. Even the encounter chits, which offer the most variety of the lot, are for the most part simply a case of visit-as-required and most have an in-play analogue at the start of the game, limiting the sense of interest and wonder as they're turned over. Need healing? Visit the healing fountain, unless of course you're nearer to the temple. Need an item? Visit the large market, unless the smaller market is nearer. Even the supposedly terrifying guards and minions of the Nameless and, sadly the Nameless itself, follow exactly the same tedious pattern for the other creatures - yet more identikit monsters.
As we've discussed, the quest system ought to lend a big hand to the story in spite of these problems. In reality it suffers from the exact same issues - all the quests are variations on pick something up and take it somewhere else. Even the supposedly "epic" quests are just a double dose of this same bland medicine. This issue is exacerbated by the seriousness with which the game takes its high-fantasy setting and its desperate desire to remain family-friendly. In this day and age, a "heroic" fantasy quest which consists of popping out to buy some candles and then taking one to the local church and lighting it just 'aint going to cut the mustard and certainly doesn't deserve the label "epic". This constant tension between wanting exciting fantasy adventure (which usually involves violence and people doing bad things) and wanting to be prudishly do-good and moral about everything it presents pervades - and spoils - the entire game. You might be able to use the encounters and the quests to build a story but it's no story I'd ever want to read or remember, and even if you can stomach the pansy-arsed niceness of the whole experience you're going to find after ten plays or so that the stories are starting to become monotonously familiar thanks to the lack of variety in the encounter set.
The designer, who is quite clearly devoted to this game, has released a number of expansions for it but most of them haven't been translated into English and aren't widely available outside Germany. I know nothing about most of these except Heroes of the Underworld which finally introduces a PvP combat system. I've seen these rules and I'm not entirely sold on them - they don't look terribly exciting and they seem fairly bound up to other rules in the expansion, limiting the use of porting them across to the base game.
The one expansion which has seen a translation and a wider release is Under the Shadow of the Dragon. This introduces some new characters - an orc, a halfling and a paladin. The latter is as bland and undifferentiated as the base characters, but the other two are more interesting - the orc can convert experience into gold, while the halfling is slow but requires less experience to advance. The expansion adds some board pieces and some new encounters and, finally, here we start to see some of the variety and interest that was lacking in the original. Some of the board tiles - the city of the mages and the labyrinth - have flavourful special rules. Two of the new monsters - the Basilisk and Doppelganger - resolve combat in more interesting ways than pick-skill-roll-dice. There's a new victory monster - the dragon - and a bunch of surprising and thematic events to go with it. Best of all, in my opinion, the game now has some magic spells which anyone can use but the rules permit the Mage character to start with one, making him an actual mage instead of just a fighter who uses a different skill. But while a step in the right direction it's ultimately not enough to salvage the blandness of the original game and, worse, using the expansion as suggested can double the play time, removing one of the appealing aspects of the original (its speed) and pushing the game to a point where the extra interest provided by the expansion can't be supported by the increased play time. I'm pretty sure you could mix-and-match aspects of the expansion and the original to make a viable game retaining the short play time but with an expended encounter set, but the question is: in such a crowded genre with so many better games, why bother?
So, I mentioned better games. What are did I have in mind?
Well, I recently reviewed Dungeonquest, and saw fit to compare RotH to it in the comparisons section, so I'd kind of be remiss not to do the same in return. There is a lot of similarity after all - fantasy adventure theme, variable board with exploration mechanisms, short play time, low player interaction, simple rules set muddied by an extensive "glossary", solo play option. Dungeonquest has the narrative straightjacket of having all the adventures being based around treasure delving in the same castle, but overcomes that obstacle by featuring a dizzying variety of both encounters and room tiles, a tense and exciting combat system to resolve monster fights, having real treasure and magic items for the players to find and, best of all, by being tongue-in-cheek and equally unfair and deadly to all the players. It lacks much in the way of skill compared to RotH but who cares when it's fun, fun, fun! Naysayers will wail that it's out-of-print and RotH isn't, but RotH has become hard to come by and DQ isn't all that hard to find on UK auction sites. I'll take blood-soaked Scandinavian mayhem over stay-at-home German tedium anytime. It's possible that the new release Tomb might fit into the same niche.
The other two games that I thought of as comparators are ones I don't know much about: Prophecy and World of Warcraft: The Adventure Game. The former runs longer than RotH (but is about the same level of complexity) and the latter is rather more complex (but runs to a similar play time), but otherwise they cover much of the same ground being modern, streamlined fantasy adventure games based around travel (rather than dungeon delving) and both purport to offer the players a lot more meaningful decision than more old fashioned American-style games in this genre. I can't comment, seeing as I've never played either, but if you can stomach a longer or more complex game then they might be worth checking it out as alternatives.
I got really excited about Return of the Heroes when I first got it and indeed after my first fews plays. At first glance, in spite of the crappy rule book, it seems to offer an awful lot for a very limited investment of time and money - a genuinely skills based fantasy adventure game with a solid and very unusual approach to generating memorable narrative. By the time my plays had reached double figures though, I was really bored with it. A game which looks intriguing and exciting on first glance but which turns out to have marginally greater re-playability than noughts and crosses, where have we seen that before? In any number of Euro-clone titles that we've decried on this site as being unworthy of your time and money and bad for the hobby as a whole. Turns out RotH is just another Eurogame, folks: move along, nothing to see here.
But the big difference between RotH and "Eurogame X" is that in RotH all the ingredients seem to be there for a good game. So what went wrong? Ultimately, whilst the po-faced approached to theme and the optimisation nature of the mechanics are marginally problematic, I feel that the biggest flaw in the game is the tedious lack of variety. By the time you've played through a session with each of the games' five characters you'll have seen absolutely everything the game has to offer. There's no interesting combinations of powers and items here to try out, no organic and inventive strategy you can pursue in terms of special abilities or movement and all the monsters (and the characters too for that matter) look the same. So why keep playing when there's nothing more to discover?
I got ten plays out of this, and the majority of those were good fun before the tedium started setting in, so this isn't a game that deserves to be slated as being outright rubbish. In addition it's worth noting that the game does come good on it's initial promise: it is a relatively easy to approach skills-based fantasy adventure game and that's a rarity. But no game that I'm ready and willing to trade after so few plays can really be recommended, especially in such a crowded genre. So on my personal five-star rating system I can't give this more than three stars: a game I'd play willingly if suggested by others, but would never lobby to play myself.